Wilmer, S. E., Performing Statelessness in Europe

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Performing Statelessness in Europe by S.E. Wilmer

Szabolcs Musca, University of Lisbon


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Performing Statelessness in Europe by S.E. Wilmer
Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, ISBN 978-3-319-69172-5 (hardcover); ISBN, 978-3-319-69173-2 (e-Book)

 The photograph of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, lying dead on a beach near Bodrum (Turkey) made global headlines in September 2015, prompting a wide-scale international response from political and humanitarian organisations alike, highlighting the world’s political, social and moral responsibility towards refugees. This terrible image represented a watershed moment at the height of the European refugee crisis in 2015. Alongside the surge in humanitarian aid, European theatres and performance initiatives, theatre-makers and various artists also started responding more robustly to the migration crisis by creating, programming and/ or commissioning work on issues of migration, refugees, and asylum.

Alongside the increasing artistic engagement with migration and refugee issues since 2015, theatre and performance scholarship has also started to develop new theoretical frameworks focusing on migrant theatre/ refugee performance. Performing Statelessness in Europe by S.E. Wilmer can be connected to critical discussions in the special issue of Critical Stages entitled ‘Theatre and Statelessness in Europe’ (December 2016), co-edited by Wilmer and Azadeh Sharifi. While Emma Cox’s Theatre and Migration (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) gave an important introduction to key aspects of migrant theatre, volumes such as Michael Balfour’s Refugee Performance: Practical Encounters (Bristol and Chicago: Intellect, 2013) and Charlotte McIvor’s Migration and Performance in Contemporary Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) looked at migration and refugee issues in applied theatre practices and in social and cultural policy, respectively. The recently published special issue of Modern Drama addressed issues of ‘Migration and Multilingualism’ (Y. Meerzon, K. Pewny, and G. Martens, eds., 61:3, 2018). In the same year, Research in Drama Education (RiDE) also published a special issue entitled ‘Envisioning Asylum/ Engendering Crisis’ (E. Cox and C. Wake eds., 23:2, 2018), looking at refugee theatre and performance. ‘Performing Inclusion’ will be the special topic of the forthcoming issue of Comunicazioni Sociali: Journal of Media, Performing Arts and Cultural Studies (R. Carpani, G.I Malini eds., 2019:1) and the next issue of Performing Ethos: International Journal of Ethics in Theatre and Performance (S. Musca ed., 2019:1) will look at ethical aspects and modalities of the theatre of migration.

Stephen Wilmer’s latest monograph enriches this rapidly growing field of scholarly investigation, providing an in-depth analysis of the most recent developments in performances of migration and refugee status, examining a multitude of theatrical responses from across Europe. In the absence of political solutions, with European societies being torn between acts of hostility and hospitality, Wilmer argues that ‘artists have been using theatrical performance to intervene in the political arena to offer insight and new perspectives’ (p. 2).  Indeed, the migrant theatre and refugee performance initiatives produced in recent years show a strong commitment to a more activist stance on the part of the theatre/arts sector in representing migrant perspectives, and in working towards a more inclusive society. Performing Statelessness in Europe demonstrates how diverse creative strategies have the potential to challenge stereotypes and shape the reception of migrants and migrant cultures.

Consisting of eight chapters (excluding the Introduction and Conclusion) enriched with valuable bibliography, Wilmer’s book gives an elaborate and insightful discussion on key issues of theatre and migration in Europe today. Theatrical forms of migrant representation and self-representation are at the centre of this book, and Wilmer presents a whole array of artistic practices that theatre-makers use to tackle “matters relating to social justice” (ibid.). In his opening chapter on adaptations and recontextualisations of ancient Greek tragedies such as Elfriede Jelinek’s Charges (2014) and David Greig’s The Suppliants (2016), the author presents contemporary performative appropriations as ethical spaces where, through staging issues of refugee status and asylum, concepts of hospitality and social duty are re-affirmed. By looking at Donal O’Kelly’s Asylum! Asylum! (1994) and Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa (2015), Wilmer in Chapter 3 takes the argument on the ‘rights of the dispossessed, the vulnerable, and the disenfranchised’ (p. 12) further. Arguably, building understanding and empathy towards diverse experiences of migration and refugedom requires identification on the part of the audiences. Wilmer argues that like many migrant theatre works, such productions ‘create sympathetic fictional characters with whom the spectators are meant to identify in order to recognize an abuse of human rights’ (p. 51). He shows how identification as an artistic or dramaturgical practice enhances empathy towards the Other (Chapter 3). In his analysis of yet another, perhaps more traditional form of migrant theatre, Wilmer looks at recent documentary theatre productions by or about refugees (Chapter 4). This important section of the book rightly questions notions of authenticity, but it also reflects on acts of witnessing.

While theatre and performance practices and strategies represent the core of this volume, Wilmer’s work is also an important contribution to scholarship, due to its critical engagement with ideologies of nation, state and practices of citizenship, drawing on current European policies and legislation and a wealth of theories by Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault, among others. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 considerably widen the book’s analytical frame, and look at a multitude of theatre and performance initiatives from Ireland (e.g. Laundry by Louise Lowe, 2011), Germany (e.g. The Situation by theatre director Yael Ronen), Slovenia (works by the performance collective Neue Slowenische Kunst), etc. that challenge social divisions as well as question the construction of national identities and the ‘myth of homogeneity’ (p. 209). Given the recent shifts in global politics and economics and the growing support for nationalist ideologies across Europe, it is unsurprising that discussions of various forms of identification employed in different performance settings all draw our attention towards notions of identity.

In this respect Performing Statelessness in Europe invites the reader to consider a transnational form of identity that is inclusive of minority and migrant histories and identities. In his analysis of productions created by Fluxus and Théâtre du Soleil (Chapter 8), Wilmer introduces concepts of nomadism, and more specifically, ‘nomadic performativity’ as a creative practice ‘in promoting multiplicities and human rights, and overcoming problems of identity politics, colonisation, and nationalism’ (p. 163). He states, drawing on Eugene Holland’s concept of ‘nomad citizenship’, that nomadism opens up the ‘possibility of change: for sharing space, for dismantling borders, for inclusiveness, transnationalism and becoming other’ (p. 185). Together with his analysis of the German theatre’s institutional responses to the refugee crisis, the two concluding chapters are amongst the most intriguing parts of this monograph. In the case of the latter, Wilmer introduces some important progressive institutional shifts and developments, such as the Berlin-based Maxim Gorki Theatre’s ‘Exile Ensemble’ initiative that empowered migrant artists to participate more formally in the work of a state-funded theatre institution.

Reading Stephen Wilmer’s book in the scholarly and theatrical context outlined above, it is right to argue that the current volume will greatly contribute to the ongoing debate on theatre and migration. Wilmer’s monograph offers a well-formulated and much-needed critical engagement with the key aesthetic directions in migrant theatre and refugee performance. His reflections on artistic approaches to refugee status, exile and asylum, and his observations on structural/ institutional shifts regarding migration, will undoubtedly expand the framework of theatre scholarship. Performing Statelessness in Europe is a welcome contribution not only within the field of theatre and migration, but also, more widely, in the area of socially engaged performing arts. Although primarily designed for academic readership, this book will certainly appeal to theatre-makers as well as creative and cultural actors involved in migrant and refugee initiatives internationally.